George W. Bush struts in to teen-idol shrieks. They are piercing and unprompted by any warm-up speaker -- only by the presence of the president himself.
Bush events are not ambivalent. Ambivalence is a Kerry thing, Bushies say. They mock Kerry's hedged explanations, evolving positions, staff shake-ups. You won't find any of that here. There is no ambivalence about anything -- about Kerry being unfit to be president or Bush being worthy or that his reelection is inevitable. "If John Kerry were here today and experienced this, John Kerry would vote for Bush," says Warren Klecan, of Lebanon, N.H.
Such is the thick aura of certainty at a Bush event. It's just a question of being here, amid the signs, shrieks and swagger. The president walks into the gymnasium with shoulders hunched and elbows out, like he's waiting for his Right Guard to dry. He is confident, his staff is confident and his events are confident affairs.
It could be dangerous if confidence were to spill into cockiness, which could become complacency. So Bush and his surrogates always emphasize that this will be a very close election. "We've said for two years that this country is closely divided and that this is going to be a close race," says campaign spokesman Reed Dickens. He adds that the "president has given orders that this campaign should function as if it's 10 points behind."
Which doesn't mean they actually believe that.
"I know we're going to win," the president said in St. Cloud, Minn., last week. "That's not just happy talk."
The campaign is buoyed by polls, however volatile in recent days, that have him winning by anywhere from 3 to 12 percentage points in nationwide surveys. He is polling even or ahead in states that Kerry needs to win, such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and here in New Hampshire, the northern neighbor of Kerry's home state, where the Massachusetts senator was leading just two weeks ago. But Bush's visit -- his fifth to the state this year -- coincides with a new survey by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research that gives Bush a nine-point lead.
"New Hampshire has been good to George W. Bush," says Gov. Craig Benson, who introduces the president Monday. He is referring to Bush's slim, 7,200-vote victory over Al Gore here in 2000, not to the 18-point hurting John McCain put on Bush in that year's New Hampshire primary. As with any campaign event, this is an exercise in touting the positive.
This being New Hampshire, site of that first-in-the-nation primary, the president is compelled to pay vigorous homage to the state's hypersensitive electorate. "I'm going to answer questions," he says, "which is kind of a New Hampshire tradition, if I remember correctly. And it's a great tradition." Indeed, he actually does take questions, just an everyday leader of the free world getting his feet held to the fire by prescreened, ticket-holding supporters.
As he likes to do, Bush calls on preselected members of the audience by name and they talk about how various parts of the Bush agenda -- such as his tax cuts -- have helped them personally. In general, Bush is at his bantering best in these events. But there is a slightly rushed, disjointed quality to this day's exchanges.
"What's your husband do?" the president asks Kathy Helm, a stay-at-home mom.
"I'm sorry," she says.
"Yes . . . he works -- "
"He works at Southern New Hampshire University. He's the A/V manager there."
Later, a man reads a lengthy letter from Marine Lance Cpl. Jesse Braggin, who graduated from Londonderry High School and is now stationed in Iraq. "There you go," Bush says after the man finishes the letter and his microphone is abruptly shut off.
"We love you, President Bush," a woman shouts from the crowd.
You go to Bush and Kerry events and you find two very different flavors of self-assurance: Kerry's crowds are utterly self-assured that Bush is dangerous, even if they're not quite so sure of their love for Kerry. But Bush's potential for reelection makes them very nervous, and thus big Kerry supporters.
Bush's crowds are utterly self-assured that their love of Bush is the majority view, so there's no use taking Kerry seriously.
Bush is dismissed with derision at Kerry events, Kerry with laughter at Bush's.
Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan and Bush I speechwriter who is advising the Bush-Cheney campaign, says in an e-mail that the confidence of the Bush campaign reflects an entrenched temperament of "American exceptionalism" among many Republicans. Republican conservatives, she says, "are not ambivalent about their country, its meaning, its special and ordained nature. Demos of our era have lost that sureness, or faith. They're not sure what America is anymore, and it shows. Conviction beats ambivalence every time."
In response to a question about Iraq here, Bush misspeaks -- "I think the world would be better off if we did leave" -- but corrects himself quickly ("if we didn't"). He takes one last "question," from a man who says that Kerry is "unworthy" and that he sends a "heartfelt prayer" to the president, and urges him to "stay the course and win the election in '04."
To which Bush says he couldn't conclude on a better note, thanks everyone and leaves to more shrieks and abiding certainty.
"I'm 99.9 percent sure Bush is going to win," Raul Cervantes, of Lebanon, says afterward. In a Bush crowd, this passes for caution.